Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

133. "Go tell that fox" (Luke 13:31-33)*

Certain Pharisees came to Jesus with a warning: "Depart hence: for Herod will kill thee" (i.e. wants you killed). This was a palpable untruth; for Herod had said concerning Jesus: "This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him" (Mt. 14:2). Herod had not at all wished to kill John, so he would much less wish to kill him a second time! Moreover, at a later day, when he had Jesus in his power he sought to inflict only mockery, and wished rather to see some miracle done by him (Lk.23:8).

Jesus knew that it was not Herod who sought his life. His rejoinder shows this: "Go ye and tell that fox . . ." This word "fox" is feminine here. Could not Jesus have hit upon some masculine term of opprobrium such as "dog" or "wolf" to describe the godless wretch who reigned over Galilee and Perea at this time? This expression, then, was probably chosen to show that Jesus knew who was the power behind the throne in Galilee: the implacable enemy not only of John but of every other prophet of righteousness, Herodias, the black-hearted woman who with the cool, deliberate villainy of a Catherine de Medici had sought and achieved her ambition-the head of a prophet on a dish.

Genuine concern, or bluff?

Then, was the warning given in good faith or not? If indeed the life of Jesus was in danger from political enemies, it was surely in the interests of the Pharisees to keep him in ignorance of the fact, so that, all unsuspected, destruction might descend on him, and thus a troublesome Galilean be removed. That warning was merely a bluff, a piece of deliberate scare-raising, to rid them of the embarrassment of this trouble-making preacher.

There is an interesting parallel in the threat of Jezebel against the life of Elijah (1 Kgs. 19:2); and also in the hostility of Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel, in his collaboration with godless Jeroboam II, to quench the prophesying of Amos (Am. 7:10-17). Both examples have some impressive corresponding details (cp. also Is. 39:10,11).

It is just possible that the warning may have been a genuine one, given by some who really had the well-being of Jesus at heart, after their own fashion. The more moderate section of the Pharisees whilst shrinking from open allegiance and whole-hearted discipleship, were genuinely sympathetic (see Study 123). Conceivably, then, it may have been these who sought to apprise Jesus of impending danger.

The Lord's reply shows how little impression this warning made on him, whether well-meant or otherwise: "It cannot be allowed that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem". The deep irony of this saying may perhaps be paraphrased: 'Jerusalem is the city that slays all the prophets; it has the monopoly (Is. 1:21); so it is there where my end must come; and that is not in Herod's jurisdiction, so why should I fear him?' Yet it was undoubtedly true that John the Baptist had been slain away from Jerusalem, and by non-Jewish hands. However, even in this instance it may be inferred that Herodias was put up to her crowning evil by the men of Jerusalem, for the comment of Jesus on that horrific episode was: "Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but they have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them" (Mt. 17:11,12; cp. also Mk.8:15 and Mt. 4:12Gk.) And was it not the men of the temple who had told an even more beastly Herod to look for the new-born Messiah in Bethlehem? (Mt. 2:4-6).

The third day

But what exactly did Jesus mean by his other words: "I cast out devils, and I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected"? There is also its parallel: "Nevertheless, I must walk today and tomorrow, and the day following". There are at least four widely differing interpretations available:

1. The only one which has the merit (always a good one) of taking the words at their face value, goes like this: The three days mentioned are those covering the journey to Bethany for the raising of Lazarus, for that miracle certainly took place about this time. The details of John 11:6,17 tend to support this. So also does the word "walk" which is, more strictly, "journey". Perhaps most impressive of all is the inter¬pretation of "and the third day I shall be perfected". Weymouth translates this: "And the third day I finish (doing cures)". To this the suggestion is attached that, except for the restoring of the ear of the servant of the high priest, the raising of Lazarus was the last "cure" performed by Jesus. The sequence in v.33 is also impressive: "... for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem (only two miles beyond Bethany)".

So far as the interpretation of details goes, this is by far the best exposition available, for every single word is given its full value. The difficulty, however, is that the raising of Lazarus was not the last miracle of healing, for it was probably followed by the healing of the ten lepers (Lk. 17:12,19) and certainly by the healing of the blind men at Jericho (Lk. 18:35; Mt. 20:30), and a host of others in the temple court {Mt. 21:14). If, instead, the phrase "I am perfected" could be taken to mean "I achieve the greatest of all my miracles", the case would surely be complete, but it is distinctly doubtful whether it should be so read.

2. Another suggestion would apply the rather dubious principle of "a year for a day" and so take "today and tomorrow, and the day following" to be an enigmatic way of alluding to his three years ministry which must needs be accomplished before his death in Jerusalem. This too, fits the context admirably. But difficulties remain and are, indeed, created.The ministry of Jesus lasted well into the fourth year (Lk. 13:7-9). Also this interpretation requires that Jesus should be in the first or second year of his public work at this time, whereas the incident belongs unquestionably to the fourth year oi ministry. Furthermore, there is no hint in the passage itself that the "year for a day" principle should be applied.

3. An Old Testament basis for the meaning of a New Testament passage should always be given specially favourable consideration, for experience shows that there is no firmer ground available to the student of the Gospels than when he has the New being interpreted for him by the Old. It is particularly interesting, therefore, to observe that it was on the third day of a journey when "Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place (Mt. Moriah, which is Jerusalem-2 Chr. 3:1) afar off" (Gen. 22:4). And it was there that Isaac was bound on the altar of sacrifice, a prototype of the One whose prophecy of his own sacrificial death is now being considered. Here are five impressive contacts between the two narratives. Examination of the phrase: "I am perfected", reveals another.

Exodus 29:9 concludes with: "And thou shall consecrate Aaron and his sons." The margin gives the literal translation of the Hebrew idiom, a very common one: "And thou shalt fill the hands of Aaron and his sons." The Greek(LXX) version turns this into "perfect the hands." This Septuagint phrase was carried over into the New Testament in a number of places as a synonym for the consecration of a high priest. For example: "For the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated (R.V. perfected) for evermore" (Heb. 7:28). In this instance, the RY gives the literal translation but the Common Version gives the true interpretation (see Notes),

Now back to Luke 13: "I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I am perfected.., for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem." These words of Jesus bring together in beautiful harmony his work as Preacher and Healer, his suffering as a Sacrifice and his glorious resurrection to an Eternal High Priesthood, even as Isaac also was received back from the dead in a figure to experience the intensified love of his father. How appropriately, too, does his lament continue: "Behold, your house (the temple) is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me until the lime come when ye shall say, (echoing from Ps. 118 the acclamation to the Messianic High Priest), Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord."

4. It turns out that "today and tomorrow and the third day" is quite possibly an Old Testament idiom like so many others that are traceable in the vivid words of Christ. Consider Moses' words: "I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant" (Ex.4:10). The margin translates the idiom literally: "neither since yesterday, nor since the third day." Similarly, "David was in Saul's presence, as in times past" (margin: as yesterday third day); 1 Sam. 19:7. Here, and also in Gen.31:2; Dt.19:4,6; Josh. 3:4; 1 Chr. 11:2, the phrase evidently stands for a vague indeterminate period in the past. Hos. 6:2 applies it also to the future in exactly the same way.

Reading this meaning into Lk. 14:32,33, and appropriating also the meaning of the word "perfected" as already explained, the words of Jesus are seen to signify: 'There is no need for me to fear Herod, for I must continue my work of healing a while longer (consider Jn. 11:9, 9:4). Nor need the Herods be at pains scheming to kill me. The evil work will be done for them. For, when I die it will certainly be at Jerusalem. And after that a great work as High Priest awaits me.'

With both this and the preceding suggestion there still remains a difficulty: What could it possibly signify to "that fox" to be told that on the "third day" Jesus would be "perfected"?

The answer must be, fairly obviously, Nothing! But it is by no means unlikely that these enigmatic words were spoken primarily for the benefit of these not-unsympathetic Bible-minded Pharisees. Recognition of the Lord's Biblical allusion would advance their comprehension of his work considerably.

Decision which of these possible explanations is the one intended by Jesus is not easy. Is there some decisive consideration which has been overlooked? It is the very brevity of the record which leaves the door open to so many different interpretations. At least this should teach a wholesome lack of dogmatism in approaching such problems of Bible exposition.

Notes: Lk. 13:32.

That fox. Literally: this fox. But why? And like "fox", the word "this" is feminine. Yet it need not have been, for in S.S.2.15 LXX "foxes" occurs with a masculine adjective.

Do cures. The verb always refers to performance of a religious duty; e.g. Heb, 8:5; 9:6; Rom. 15:28; 2 Cor. 8:6,11; Gal. 3:3. Accepting the views already mentioned in these Studies (30 etc.) that the healing miracles of Jesus demonstrated his authority over God's angels of evil, this mention of demons and cures in effect says: If I have authority over such, do I have any cause to fear lesser powers of evil such as Herod and Herodias?

Perfected; s.w. Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 10:14; 12:23; Jn. 17:23. In all of these read "consecrated", for in each of them the context is priesthood.

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